Who can forget the beautiful voice and its flawless rendition of some of the choicest Ragas from the repertoire of Hindustani classical music? This was none other than Gangubai Hangal, one of the best exponents of khayal genre in India. Her life is a saga of revolt against hypocrisy, injustice and bigotry rampant in a society marred by casteism. Along with her honourable peers, she assiduously upheld and maintained the heritage of the famous Kirana Gharana. She was an empowered woman who by the dint of her hard labour, dedication and innate talent made it to the highest echelons, despite her poverty and lower caste status.
A Humble Beginning
She was born 5th March 1913, in Dharwad, Karnataka. She was named Gandhari Hangal at birth, Hangal being her obscure native village. Her father Chikkurao Nadiger was a Brahmin agriculturalist, though not legally married to her mother Ambabai. Ambabai as well as her mother Kamlabai, hailed from Gangamat (shudra) community of boatmen. Those were harrowing times for women from lowest rung of society. Gangubai retained her matriarchal name, as per the family custom.
On top of this, if they happened to be professional musicians they were frowned upon by society. Men from higher castes branded them as angavastra (a stole/accessory not part of formal attire). This implied that such women are not eligible to be wives—who ended up as mistresses or concubines of upper caste menfolk. This was the sad plight of Gangubai’s family members too. Quite naturally, right since her childhood the little girl constantly faced untouchability, insults and ostracisation from her high caste neighbours. She left school after fifth grade.
Quite naturally, right since her childhood the little girl constantly faced untouchability, insults and ostracisation from her high caste neighbours. She left school after fifth grade.
Gangubai learnt singing from her mother, which was followed by training under maestros like Shri Krishnacharya Hulgur, Shri Dattopant Desai and Pt. Rambhau Kundgolkar, alias Sawai Gandharva a doyen of the Kirana Gharana (founded by Ustad Abdul Karim Khan). By 1928, Gangubai’s family had moved to Hubli, whereas Sawai Gandharva resided in Kundgol, 30 kms away. So everyday she would take a train to Kundgol to attend music classes. Day in and day out she encountered jeering and booing: ‘Dekho, dekho, gaanewali aiyi hai’ (look at the singing girl!). It was humiliating, but she turned a deaf ear to them. This arduous routine continued till Sawai Gandharva decided to relocate to Hubli.
Musical Career Kickstarts
The year was 1924. Gangubai who was just 11, was selected to sing the invocatory song at the Indian National Congress session in Belgaum, Karnataka. For the young girl it was a memorable occasion since Mahatma Gandhi, who presided over the session, was a part of the audience. Before the event, Gangubai constantly oppressed by the malaise of casteism, was apprehensive that she would have to eat alone and also scavenge the dining area after the high caste delegates finished their meals. Ultimately her fears proved unfounded!
However her full fledge singing debut came in 1933 at the Suburban Music Circle, Santa Cruz Bombay. Shortly afterwards Jaddan Bai ( sensational performing artist & mother of actress Nargis Dutt) spotted her and cajoled her to attend a music conference in Calcutta. This brought her tremendous exposure and contacts with maestros as well as connoisseurs like Ustad Nissar Hussein Khan, K.L Saigal, the incumbent Maharaja of Tripura and more, which impacted her career a great deal.
While still in her teens, her vocals were recorded by HMV. As the story goes, it was HMV which as responsible for the change in her nomenclature. The company’s top brass told her the replacing Gandhari with Gangu and Hangal with Hubli would help her garner fame. Many changes, confusions, and bungling later she preferred to remain Gangubai Hangal.
It was a momentous occasion for Gangubai when in 1936, she sang as a stand-in for Hirabai Barodekar (Abdul Karim Khans’ daughter) on All India Radio. She continued singing on AIR from various stations countrywide till the 1940s. Initially she sang bhajan and thumri, then shifted to Khyal. Still later, she refused to sing light classical, and returned to pure Ragas. As a part of her musical journey, Gangubai immensely enjoyed performing at the annual All India Music Conferences, where she mingled with many her renowned contemporary musicians like Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Firoz Dastur Omkarnath, Kesarbai, Bismillah Khan, Allauddin Khan, Siddeshwari Devi among others.
It would prove to be a mega confluence of musical expertise. During the late 1970s and 1980s she undertook to showcase the country’s cultural heritage through her performances in France, West Germany, Canada and the United States.
As Gangubai’s vocal renditions became widely popular far and wide, awards came sweeping in. Beginning with the Karnataka Sangeet Nritya Academy Award in 1962, she went on to receive the Padma Bhushan in 1971 followed by Sangeet Nataka Akademi award two years later.
Gangubai settled down (though not formally married) with Gururao Kaulgi, a Brahmin lawyer when she was 16 in the true Devdasi style. She bypassed a formal, civil marriage fearing that their caste differences would ruin their wedlock. The couple had three children—daughter, Krishna, who tragically succumbed to cancer in 2004 and two sons. Their domestic life was perpetually fraught with financial crunch.
Awards & Accolades
As Gangubai’s vocal renditions became widely popular far and wide, awards came sweeping in. Beginning with the Karnataka Sangeet Nritya Academy Award in 1962, she went on to receive the Padma Bhushan in 1971 followed by Sangeet Nataka Akademi award two years later. Then followed the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 1996. Finally, in 2002 she was adorned with the Padma Vibhushan. Karnataka University also conferred on her an honorary Doctorate degree.
The Last Years
During the final phase of life Gangubai stayed on in her native town of Hubli. To mark her 75 year-long innings in the realm of classical music she gave a public performance in March 2006. This was her swan song. She fought bone cancer for long but emerged victorious in 2003. Eventually she died of cardiac arrest on 21st July, 2009, four years short of a century!
Gone, but Not Forgotten
In 2008, the Karnataka honoured the child of its soil by renaming the Karnataka State Music University, Mysore after Gangubhai Hangal. Thereafter the Karnataka State Dr. Gangubai Hangal Music and Performing Arts University Act, 2009 was passed by the State Legislature. Gangothri—the birthplace of Gangubai Hangal—has been turned into a museum by the state government. In addition Dr Gangubai Hangal Gurukul, located in Hubli imparts training in traditional Guru-Shishya parampara to young aspirants. In 2014 the Government of India released a postage stamp in her honour.